Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Spoiler Alert: The College Admissions Scandal is Actually About Economic Anxiety

I’m amazed how much time I spend thinking about the economy these days -- and how often I find myself writing about it and/or speaking about it, too. It’s gotten to the point where I feel the need to inject a note of explanation a few minutes into my Happy Parents, Happy Kids parenting presentation: “Hey, parents: if you’re starting to wonder if you accidentally stumbled into an economics lecture by mistake, please bear with me for a couple more minutes. I’m about to connect the dots between what’s happening in the economy and what we’re experiencing in our lives as parents: all the feelings of anxiety, guilt, and overwhelm.” At that point, I proceed to talk about the many ways that economic policy decisions spill over into our daily lives as parents in often-messy ways -- and in ways that only serve to make parenting so much more difficult and more stressful.

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I think we need to be doing this more often -- connecting the dots between economic policy and what we’re experiencing in our day-to-day lives. Because when we fail to take into account the many ways that economic decisions impact on our lives and experiences, we fail to pick up on the real story -- what’s actually driving people to behave in extreme, seemingly illogical, and/or self-defeating ways.

Take what happened this past week, for example. One of the biggest news stories of the week was about the US college admissions scandal: how wealthy parents have been trying to rig the system in order to give their children an unfair advantage at college admissions time. Needless to say, the majority of stories were fuelled by a tidal wave of outrage at those parents. But, in the majority of cases, the stories failed to grapple with the bigger picture: why even incredibly privileged parents feel such tremendous pressure to try to rig the admissions process on behalf of their kids.

So why are those parents feeling that pressure? The answer, of course, is economic anxiety. While these super-wealthy celebrity parents may not be worried about losing their home or being unable to put groceries on the table (the kind of stuff that tends to come to mind when most of us think about “economic anxiety”), they’re worried about a loss of status. They dread the prospect of watching their children tumble downward into the ranks of the merely garden-variety wealthy as opposed to the super-wealthy, for example. In other words, the economic anxiety is real for these parents, even if their worst nightmare scenario (“My kid might have to settle for an upper middle class life!”) is the stuff of which parental fantasies are made for the rest of us. After all, at a time when precarious employment is on the rise, a more typical dream might be considerably less lofty (“My kid has a full-time job with benefits and he can even afford to pay his own rent!”)

This whole opportunity-hoarding phenomenon is something I wrote about in the previous issue of my bi-monthly newsletter newsletter The Villager -- and it’s a point I made again this week in an interview with a reporter from GlobalNews.ca. I hadn’t expected the reporter to include my comment in her story, given that the piece she was writing was focused on how the college admissions scandal is likely to affect the lives of the young people affected, but, to my surprise and delight, she did:

Douglas says we should be looking at why parents feel this immense pressure to assist their kids in the first place. She says today’s economic realities and “dog-eat-dog” world makes parents do everything in their power to help their children get ahead. “All parents are feeling that pressure right now, it’s not limited to any certain economic group,” [Douglas] explained. “Until we grapple with some things that are happening on the economic and cultural level, I think we are being really hard on the parents who are engaging in this behaviour because it makes so much sense… in terms of the pressure they’re feeling.”  

I think we need to be talking a lot more about this stuff. I, for one, will certainly be continuing to do so, even if my efforts leave a few parents scratching their heads, wondering if they accidentally stumbled into an economics class instead of a parenting presentation.

I’ll be doing so because looking at the bigger, structural factors that are making life harder for parents is the path forward to a happier and healthier future for families and communities.

In other words, this conversation matters a lot.

Back-to-School Parenting: That White Space on Your Calendar? It's Called Breathing Room

That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.

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Back-to-school season also happens to be extra-curricular activity sign-up season: that time of year when it is tempting to sign your kids (and yourself!) up for every conceivable activity. Everything sounds so exciting and so much fun. And it is -- as long as it doesn't tip your family into complete overload mode. 

Last year at this time, I shared some strategies for resisting the temptation to fill each and every square of your family's calendar with all kinds of fabulous activities.

This year, I'm going to build on that earlier post by talking about the benefits of leaving a little white space on your calendar -- of allowing your child to experience a healthy amount of boredom.

The upside of boredom

In our culture, we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing -- as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it isn't actually something to be feared and dreaded? What if it's actually more like a gift? 

As it turns out, there are at least three significant benefits to allowing our kids -- and ourselves -- to be bored, at least according to the growing body of research on the science of boredom. 

1. Boredom encourages creativity

This happens because being bored is such a deeply uncomfortable feeling for us humans. Our brains will do pretty much anything to avoid it. You've no doubt experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you were stuck in a meeting room, waiting for someone else to arrive: someone who was running really, really late. As the minutes kept ticking away, you grew increasingly restless, and, out of utter, sheer desperation, you looked for a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly your eyes hit upon a stash of office supplies. And, before you knew it, you were making a chain out of paper clips or a patchwork quilt out of sticky notes. Anything to relieve the boredom! 

It's not just you, by the way, who finds boredom incredibly uncomfortable. One group of people who were participating in a scientific study about boredom actually voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks as a means of relieving those very same feelings! It was either sit there and do nothing or give yourself an electric shock. They opted for the electric shock!

The challenge for most of us these days is to actually allow ourselves to sit with these feelings of boredom and to encourage our kids to do the same. If we reach for our cell phones as a way to relieve those feelings of boredom, we miss out on the opportunities to exercise the creative parts of our brain. Likewise, if we rush in too soon to solve the so-called "problem" of boredom for our kids, we rob them of these opportunities, too. 

This is something I was speaking with Christine Hennebury about recently for a recent CBC Radio parenting column. She's a creativity coach and mother of two and a firm believer in the benefits of boredom. Here's what she had to say: "Teaching our kids to be okay with the discomfort of being bored can help us to gain a little mental real estate for ourselves -- and I think it's good problem-solving practice for them. The more problems they solve on their own -- including the problem of being bored and the ability to get comfortable with that uncertainty of 'What do I do next?' -- the fewer problems that we will have to solve for them." 

So you get a break.

The kids get to work on their problem-solving skills.

It's pretty much the ultimate win-win!

2. Being bored can reconnect you with your sense of purpose.

When you're bored, your mind starts to wander in a good way that encourages broader and more expansive thinking. Suddenly, you're able to see the broader perspective, the so-called big picture, as opposed to narrowly fixating on the minutiae of daily living. You're able to connect the dots between past, present, and future, something that allows you to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from your life. You know who you are, where you've been, and where you're headed. Your life actually starts to feel like it makes sense!

3. Being bored can make you a kinder person.

This is one of the more fascinating findings I stumbled across while pouring through the research on boredom while writing my forthcoming book. Spending time in a state of boredom actually encourages altruism, empathy, and acts of kindness. Researchers think that this is the direct result of the very thing we were just talking about: the fact that being bored encourages us to engage in deeper and more expansive thinking -- the kind of deeper thinking that allows us to become the best and wisest version of ourselves. We're no longer living our lives on autopilot, in a state of perpetual distraction. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us in life, like our relationships with other people. And that, in turn, encourages us to come up with creative ways of nurturing those relationships. We're so much happier and healthier as a result.

Helping kids to get comfortable with being bored

So now that we've talked about the benefits of boredom, let's talk about what it takes to help kids to become comfortable with the feeling of being bored and to figure out how to solve the problem of boredom for themselves. 

As parents, we can help them to understand that boredom is actually a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. They need to know that the restless feeling we experience when we're really, really bored is designed to spur us to action. It's like an error message from your brain telling your body, "Hey! We've got to do something differently here!" The challenge is to figure out what that "different" might be. Maybe it means switching from a boring task (like mindlessly surfing the Internet) to a more interesting task (like doing art or solving a puzzle). And sometimes it means finding a way to make a boring task less boring (perhaps listening to some music while you're unloading the dishwasher).

And, of course, this is a skill we can practice in our own lives as well -- because being a grownup can be pretty boring at times, too. Think about it. Folding laundry is never going to rank up there as one of life's top ten most thrilling experiences. Ditto for washing dishes or, if you're a parent, listening to a six year old rhyme off an endless stream of "knock, knock" jokes. 

When boredom becomes a problem

Of course, as with anything else in life, you can get too much of a good thing -- even when that "good thing" means being bored. Extreme amounts of boredom can trigger unhealthy or even risky behaviours. Not only is boredom associated with mindless eating: it's also linked to substance abuse, bad driving, risky sex, problem gambling, and even political extremism. And it has been linked to poor grades, increased dropout rates, and difficulty managing impulses. 

That last bit brings to mind the time when two of my boys decided to relieve their feelings of boredom by playing with the can of spray paint they found in the next door neighbour's garage. As they discovered, curiosity may be the cure for boredom, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. Or, as boredom researcher Andreas Elipidorou likes to put it: "The interesting isn't always beneficial." (Fortunately, the neighbours were pretty understanding.)

So you definitely don't want your kids to be bored 24/7. Extra-curricular activities can be a godsend -- in moderation.

It's about finding that sweet spot between total boredom and total overload.

That's where the magic happens as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: How Self-Compassion Eases Back-to-School Anxiety for Parents + Kids

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The kids are getting ready to head back to school. It's an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year for parents and kids alike. If you're looking for a way to ease the pressure and dial down the anxiety that you and your child may be feeling, you may want to tap into the far-reaching benefits of practicing self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?

Not quite sure what I'm talking about when I refer to self-compassion? Here's a quick crash course. 

Self-compassion is compassion directed toward the self. It's about being at least as kind to yourself as you are to other people, as opposed to being harsher, more critical, or less kind.

Self-compassion is deeply rooted in a feeling of connectedness to other people. It encourages you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that everyone goes through times of struggle. It's not just you. 

Self-compassion is action-oriented. It's about wanting good things to happen for yourself and being willing to take action to make those good things happen. For most of us, that means learning how to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to feeling like we need to run away from those feelings. As psychotherapist Jennifer Brighton explained when I interviewed her for my recent CBC Radio parenting column on self-compassion, "The essence of being self-compassionate always comes down to, 'I am suffering and I'm willing to see that -- and now how do I get through this?'" So self-compassion is about really listening to yourself when you're having a bad day, just as you would really listen to a friend who was struggling. And then it's simply a matter of allowing that "conversation" with yourself to guide you in deciding what action you should take to make things better.  

How is self-compassion different from self-esteem?

Self-compassion is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance whereas self-esteem is much more dependent on achievement. You feel great about yourself when you're achieving all kinds of fabulous things  and terrible about yourself when you're not.

People whose self-worth is tied to self-esteem tend to crave a lot of external validation. They need other people to tell them that they're worthwhile human beings as opposed to finding those feelings of worthiness within themselves.

Self-esteem is also related to feelings of competition. You're constantly striving to be the best -- and you're not afraid to do so at the expense of other people, if that's the price you have to pay to get ahead. This can leave you feeling separate from other people (because you see those other people as potential competitors as opposed to potential friends) and it can even promote unkind or even bullying behaviours. 

So, as you can see, self-compassion and self-esteem are as different as night and day, both in terms of how they leave you feeling about yourself and how they encourage you to treat other people. 

How can kids benefit from learning about self-compassion?

Teaching kids about self-compassion can help to counter deep-rooted cultural messages that encourage perfectionism and fuel feelings of anxiety. This is important because there's growing evidence that perfectionism is on the rise. A recent study of over 41,000 Canadian, American, and British college students concluded that, "Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others." That's pretty much the recipe for great personal unhappiness, poor mental health, and poor relationships with others. 

As parents, we need to seize the opportunity to help our kids find a happier, healthier path through life -- a path that includes teaching kids about self-compassion.

Here's why.

First of all, self-compassion encourages emotional stability. Your child doesn't have to repeatedly demonstrate her worthiness by constantly chasing after achievement after achievement. She understands that she is lovable and worthy just by virtue of being herself. Teaching your child about self-compassion means giving your child the precious gift of self-acceptance.

Secondly, self-compassion encourages resilience. Your child is better able to bounce back from life's road bumps. Instead of beating himself up when he fails a math test, he is able to acknowledge what's happened and come up with strategies for dealing with the underlying problem (like maybe getting some extra help from his math teacher). And because he's able to make the shift into action mode, he's less likely to find himself stuck in a downward spiral of negative emotions -- emotions that might otherwise interfere with his efforts resolve the problem of that failed math test. 

Finally, self-compassion encourages learning and growth. Your child isn't afraid to take chances or to try new things because his feelings of self-worth aren't narrowly anchored in any single achievement. Who cares if he tries that new thing and falls flat on his face? He's still a 100% worthy and lovable human being and he knows it.

How can parents benefit from practicing self-compassion?

Self-compassion changes the entire landscape of parenting. It makes everything so much less stressful. 

For starters, it makes parenting easier. Parenting is hard enough without having a self-critical voice in your head constantly telling you that "you're doing it all wrong." Self-compassion helps to silence that voice.

Self-compassion also helps you to become a kinder and a more effective parent. You find it easier to acknowledge and accept your child's struggles and shortcomings, just as you've learned to accept your own. Instead of asking yourself to be perfect and insisting that your child be perfect, too, you recognize that you're both doing the best that you can with the skills and abilities that you have right now -- and that you can build on those skills and abilities over time. It's about learning and growing together. 

How to teach your kids (and yourself!) about self-compassion

The best way to teach kids about self-compassion is by modelling this skill for them. Our kids are always paying attention to what we do and what we say -- so let your child catch you being kind to yourself the next time you forget an appointment, misplace your car keys, or spill a cup of coffee on the couch. 

It's also helpful to talk about self-compassion as a family. When you're watching a movie together, highlight situations where characters are treating themselves with extreme kindness or extreme unkindness. Talk about what motivates these types of behaviour and what the real-life fallout can be of being perpetually mean to yourself.

If you have a child who is extremely self-critical, help your child to change the channel in her brain from self-criticism to self-compassion. The next time you catch her saying unkind things about herself, encourage her to think about what she would say to a friend who was dealing with the very same situation. Then encourage her to say those same kinds of things to herself. 

At first, practicing self-compassion may feel awkward and unnatural — and you might even find yourself getting a little discouraged. What you don’t want to do is to beat yourself up for not getting this self-compassion thing right — or at least not right away. It takes practice to master any new skill, and self-compassion is no exception. the first step is to simply pay attention to the voice in your head — to notice how often that voice is critical as opposed to kind. Then, when you catch yourself saying something harsh or judgmental to yourself, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Is that really true? Am I actually the world’s worst klutz, just because I spilled a drink on the couch?” and “Would I say something that harsh and judgmental to a coworker or my best friend, if they were the one who spilled the drink on the couch?” (Hopefully, the answer is no!)

If you can remind yourself of the far-reaching benefits to both yourself and your child of mastering this skill together, you’ll be more motivated to keep trying to treat yourselves (and one another) with greater compassion.

You’ll want to do the hard but life-affirming work of journeying to that happier, healthier place as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gram, Self-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

You're Invited to the Parenting Through the Storm Book Club (it's free and it's online)

Ann Douglas is hosting a Parenting Through the Storm Book Club for four weeks starting November 12. It's free and it's online. 

Ann Douglas is hosting a Parenting Through the Storm Book Club for four weeks starting November 12. It's free and it's online. 

Ever wish you could participate in a book club from the comfort of your own couch, with a mug of your favourite steamy beverage in hand? Now you can!

I'm joining forces with VoicED Radio to host a four-week online book club focusing on Parenting Through the Storm (my guide to parenting a child who is struggling with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge).

Each Sunday night at 8 pm ET, I'll be zeroing on one of the key themes discussed in the book and inviting a special guest to chat with me. Here's a sneak preview of who I've invited and what we'll be talking about. 

I hope you'll plan to tune in to the discussion (you can listen in via this link) and to participate in the Twitter discussion as well.

And, just to be clear, this is a 100% guilt-free book club. You don't have to read the book in order to be involved. (Because what parent needs more guilt in their life, right?) 

UPDATE: Missed an episode of the book club? You can replay all four episodes here.

How to Start a Parenting Book Club

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Looking for a way to strike up friendships with the other parents you bump into in the hallway at your child's school -- or that great group of parents you like to hang out with online?

Why not consider starting your own parenting book club?

It's a fun and easy way to spark discussions about all things parenting and to build relationships other parents. (If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child's parent. Starting a parenting book club is a powerful way to create and nurture that village.)

Here's what you need to know to get started....

Step One: Decide whether you want to meet face-to-face or online.

Naturally, there are pros and cons to going either route. Face-to-face conversations offer more opportunities for small talk -- casual chitchat that tends to break the ice and that can help to establish trust. But scheduling face-to-face anything can be a major challenge, as you know. There will always be another activity (or ten) competing for people's time. And while online discussion groups are the clear winner when it comes to scheduling (parents can dive in and out of discussions at the time that's work best for them), you're unlikely to have their sole, undivided attention. There's always a Facebook or Twitter notification ready to lure them away from whatever your book club is talking about -- or they may overlook your book club discussions entirely if they're having a particularly busy newsfeed day. 

And then there's the issue of deciding where to meet (at your child's school? at the local library? in someone's home) or where to host your online discussions (in a private Facebook group? in some other online space?). Your goals in either situation -- whether you're meeting face-to-face or online -- are (1) to safeguard the confidentiality of member discussions and (2) to make being involved blissfully simple and hassle-free. (Don't ask parents to drive across town or to download obscure third-party software in order to participate in your book club or they simply won't bother.) 

Step Two: Invite other parents and ask them to help you spread the word.

Send out an email or text message to other parents you know, letting them know that you have a parenting book club in the works. Or share your invitation via social media, so that other parents can help you spread the word. If you're hosting your parenting book club at your child's school or the local branch of your public library, maybe the school or library would be willing to help publicize your book club via their newsletter or website, too. 

You'll find that parents are more likely to want to be involved if you're upfront about your plans and expectations, so be sure to include details about how often you'll be meeting, when and where you'll be meeting, and how many books you expect them to tackle in any given year.

Pro tip: Parents are among the most time-stressed people on the planet, so you may find you get more uptake if you're only asking parents to read a chapter or two -- as opposed to an entire book -- each month. Anything more than that may feel overwhelming and discourage parents from becoming involved.

Step Three: Promise to deliver a guilt-free book club experience to your book club members. 

Parents don't need any additional things to feel guilty about. They've got plenty already. So don't beat them up for missing a meeting or not having time to do the readings or for having to dash out the door mid-meeting to deal with a kid-related emergency. Hey, life happens....

And speaking of sidestepping stress, you'll also want to prevent any inadvertent book club drama. This means be explicit about the need for confidentiality. Discussions about parenting inevitably get personal, so book club members need to know that the stories they share with other book club members won't become fodder for the gossip mill. What happens in book club should stay in book club, in other words....

Step Four: Keep it simple.

Focus on what matters most: the actual parenting discussions. Sure, it's great to have delicious, eye-catching snacks -- even snacks that tie into the book's theme. But it can be stressful to find yourself scrambling to put together an Instagram-worthy contribution at 1:00 am the night before.

So keep it simple on the snack front. And, while you're at it, look for other ways to minimize the work associated with hosting a parenting book club. For example, choose books that already have existing book club discussion guides. That will save you the work of coming up with a list of discussion questions on your own. (Not quite sure what a book club discussion guide is or what it has to offer? Check out the book club guide for my book Parenting Through the Storm as an example.)

And, speaking of simple yet powerful ways to ramp up your book club discussions, consider inviting the author of the book you're discussing to join in the conversation (in person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangout). It's something that most authors are thrilled to do, time and geography permitting. And even if they can't join your discussions in real time, odds are they'd be happy to send along a video greeting or other book club message instead. (I, for one, am thrilled when book clubs make the ask because it gives me the chance to connect with readers of my books -- the whole reason I became an author in the first place.)

There's also an added benefit to making contact with the author: if your book club is big enough and you're purchasing large quantities of the author's book, you may qualify for a bulk purchase discount. (That discount tends to kick in at around the 20 copy mark, depending on the book's publisher.) 

So there you have it: a quick guide to launching your own parenting book club. Have some advice to pass along to other parents, based on your own book club experiences? Please share it via the comments section below. (Thanks!)


Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She loves to connect with parents via parenting book clubs and other face-to-face and online events